Following on from this thread, some MMO theory gibber.
So here's the thing: Eve Online is a better model for making an MMO than World Of Warcraft. If someone, right now, was looking for a way to create an interesting MMO they should take Eve as their mechanical gameplay model, and not WoW.
Now that doesn't necessarily mean that Eve Online is a better MMO than World Of Warcraft. Eve is messed up and broken in all kinds of outrageous ways, and the PvP-heavy spaceship-centric world design puts most people off the idea completely. What it does mean is that there's the potential for a better MMO to be built using the principles that Eve has pioneered. So forget what you know, or think you know, about Eve Online and imagine instead what World Of Warcraft would be like if it were designed with the same principles as Eve Online.
This is a thought experiment. It requires that you try to imagine what the most successful MMO in the world would be like if its design principles were quite different. (Less successful, probably, but still...) It would look similar on the surface, and have the same fantasy-world design that we all know and love, but its innards, its workings and functions, and the experience of playing it, would be rather different.
First and foremost:
There would be no levels. You would not level up, you would simply collect skills over time.
Eve does not have a level system. Instead it has a huge range of skills that allow you to use a range of equipment proficiently. You train these up over time. Easy ones take a few minutes, advanced ones take days or weeks. You cannot grind skills, only money.
So if you were, say, a World Of Evecraft paladin, you'd slowly master a huge range of paladin-relevant skills with perhaps some crafting skills thrown in for good measure. Older paladins would be slightly more proficient in combat than younger ones, but their true value would be in their versatility. A paladin character created just a few weeks ago might be able to fight with a one-handed sword at the same level as his older friend, but he would not be proficient with heavier armour, or horses, or axes, and so on. The older character would also have some crafting skills under his belt, making him wealthier, and some magic, making him handy in a tight spot. He'd probably be able to afford better equipment, and there would be nothing stopping him giving a decent sword to his poor and lowly newbie friend. He couldn't give him a giant warhorse, of course, because the newbie wouldn't have trained to handle it.
This has some other ramifications, the most significant of which is that there's no gulf between low level and high level characters, and they are not separated by an artificial vertical barrier. You'd never need to 'catch up' with a friend who had leveled beyond you. He'd simply be better at dealing with the problems you tackled together.
This means that if an experienced character is going out to kill a tough dragon then younger, weaker characters can still tag along to help. He might “LFG” and settle for a couple of younger healers instead of one older, richer one with good kit. Because there are no levels for characters, there are no levels for monsters, they are simply tougher, or weaker. Tougher challenges require teamwork.
This means there's broad scope for PvP too. If you're going out to fight other players then the younger, weaker characters can still contribute to the overall potential of your group – an older character might mince the newbies with his greater range of skills, but he'll still be vulnerable to their attacks once the fight starts. In a level-based system it would be almost impossible for a bunch of level 3 characters to take down a level 60 character. In a flat, skill-based system, a wide range of weaker characters could indeed kill a lone, powerful older character. It's not only more realistic, but it breaks down the kind of weird, artificial structures that are formed by PvP in a level-based game.
This means there has to be teamwork, and there has to be co-operation between older and newer players.
Money would be the main driving force in the game, not XP.
Because there's no level-grind, money becomes ever more important. It can buy you the rare weapons and the decent armour. If there is real loss and destruction of property - as there is in Eve - the need for money becomes ever greater. The drive for money also creates some immediate and important goals, ie: securing resources. While World Of Warcraft's PvP servers do see some fights over resources, they're nothing compared to Eve's vast territorial conflicts. In our imaginary Evecraft game you'd be riding out from the safe regions of Ironforge and Ogrimmar to try to secure mining resources, or lumber, or alchemical ingredients. You'd fortifying, driving off raiders, and exploiting the resources while you controlled them. The places where these things appeared would be fought over by players in long, drawn-out wars. Mutual-interest alliances would form naturally among the players (as they have in Eve) who would in turn spend on infrastructure to defend their investments. Evecraft creates conflicts that far outweigh the arbitrary Horde vs Alliance struggle. This is a struggle for livelihood, and the ability to craft magic hats.
The lack of levels would mean that WoW's many regions would not be off-limits to anyone (as they are now if you're not the appropriate level), and your safety in a particular area would depend entirely whether you were likely to fall foul of local player alliances, or whether you were canny enough avoid the gangs of player-brigands who would no doubt appear on the roads between important resources centres. Of course there would be safe areas, instanced dungeons, missions and crafting you could do without risking your neck - but heading out into the big bad wilderness would be where the real rewards could be reaped.
Suddenly, with some rather different design principles, the traditional fantasy MMO starts to look a little more like a palpable, "real" world. No longer is there level 35 cake you can't eat because you're only level 30 (which must be one of the weirdest things in WoW), simply some more expensive cake that you can't afford unless you've managed to hook up with the guilds who control more lucrative areas, or you've managed to corner the market in crafting charmed socks.
This is how the principles of Eve create a compelling world that people can't leave alone: by supplying them with the tools to create goals they can set for themselves - something beyond simply completing quests or repeatedly defeating dungeons. It's a world where you can follow the quest arc, but it it always points to a big bad world of risk and adventure beyond the horizon. (Eve players call this 0.0 space.)
What Eve doesn't do, of course, is create a world that is as compelling and immediate as World Of Warcraft. And this ties in to my final point.
You might respond to all this and say: “but levelling up gives us something to aim for, the skilling in Eve is so much more nebulous, so to speak. It's better to have quests and a magic horse at level 40 I can aim for. That is why WoW has some many millions of people playing it.” This is correct, and it's another reason why the principles, rather than the execution, of Eve Online are worthy of copying. If you were to base your game on Eve you'd make skills, items, and equipment both aspiration-worthy and customisation-friendly. It's about presentation as much as mechanics. Many of Eve's skills are little more than percentage stat increases, so any game wanting Warcraftian appeal needs to make more of these skills have direct and obvious ramifications on characters – pets, mounts and transport, even player owned structures and one-off items. One of Eve's failures is the obscurity of its aspirational targets – any game wanting wider appeal needs to present this more clearly.
Of course I don't actually give two hoots whether a game is appealing to a wider audience – my criteria is whether it'd be fun to play: and a “flat”, open world in which players can feel like the are able to set their own goals and surmount significant challenges is the kind of game I want to play. I don't want to be cut off from older players or newbies by the level-divide, and I don't want to feel like the world resets no matter what I do it. I want to see real change. I already play that kind of game in Eve, but I know that the game I'm playing is far from perfect. Nevertheless it's an admirable set in the right direction and one that I'd like to see mimicked and perfected, just as the games that followed Everquest did for the linear level model.
There's a load more stuff about Eve's semi-real time combat, trade and politicking I should add in here too, but actually I've got to play TF2 and then head to the pub. More on this subject, I suspect, later on.